Striving For Perfection All But Kills Innovation

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We are socialized to always try to do our best and our parents want us to be our very best. At the same time, products and tools compete for our attention with their attempts to out-beat and outpace everything else in the current marketplace. This environment of competition is not a bad thing as we attempt to make our world a better place.

Competition creates new paradigms that foster growth and advancement in every field from STEM to the arts. Healthy competition is a key driver, and we reward individuals and teams for being at the top of the heap. We refer to them as stars, thought disruptors, change agents, phenoms, Olympians and influencers. They are close to perfect as perfect can be.

Consider the leaders who can be classified as true perfectionists. We do know that generally, self-doubt underlies most perfectionists. These tireless souls stay up all night worrying about most things. This is not always a bad thing, as it can create passion and the will to persevere. However, we do know that failure breeds success. As a matter of fact, most successful people have failed many times.

The challenge is that perfectionists rarely allow themselves to fail. This may result in blind ambition. They may squander their intellect rather than pause to consider how new variables may inform an even more robust direction than originally chosen.

The pursuit of perfection has derailed us. Somewhere along the way the need to win has been interpreted and translated into the need to be perfect. The irony is that perfection is the antithesis of innovation. Perfectionists, although highly invested, expend tremendous energy and suffer from a fatal flaw. This flaw is not recognizing that in their dogged pursuit of perfection they may miss critical elements that could lead to an even better solution.

Innovation means having the ability to start with a dream. Truly creative minds possess a key attribute to achieving those dreams: the ability to be bold and courageous.

So what is a perfectionist who wants to make a difference to do? They must recognize that their vision will need to be altered many times as they explore, experiment and build. If you are a perfectionist and you truly want to change the world, then ask yourself if you have adopted these key practices:

1. Develop strategic partnerships: Be inclusive. The more you share your thoughts with other innovators, the greater this fuels your creativity and ultimate output. Nothing great has ever been achieved in isolation.

2. Pivot: Adapt as new information or data points become available. Be prepared to change direction.

3. Embrace failure: Taking risks will entail making mistakes. Failure is a reflection of strength. Have the strength to pick yourself up with new learnings and know when to start all over again with a fresh perspective.

4. Set high standards, not impossible standards: Going for gold means adopting an agile mindset. This is different from perfectionism, the narrow focus that puts you at risk of your competitors leaving you in the dust.

So it is important to think of perfectionism not as an ideal, but rather as an unhealthy motivation that can negatively compete with your ability to make your mark. Instead, you must think about how you can create your legacy by demonstrating an agile mindset. This mindset allows for bumps and bruises along the way. The ultimate goal is to add value to consumers in ways that currently do not exist. Sacrificing perfection promotes cutting-edge innovation which will pave the way for a new frontier.

Cindy Wahler is a leadership consultant specializing in executive coaching and talent management. Reach her at cwahler@cindywahler.com

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